Is Xing Yi a nature-based martial art any longer?

I quite often see this written in Xing Yi discussions:

“The animals are just variations of the five elements”.

I should probably just let it go, but I can’t. This idea that Xing Yi’s 12 animals are just variations of the 5 element fists has become so ubiquitous now that it’s almost impossible to counteract. And, of course, it’s true in a very basic sense, but it’s far from the whole story of Xing Yi, and it creates a misleading impression of what the art really is. It’s also buying into the whole reductionist movement in Chinese martial arts that happened in the 20th century, performed by both the Republic of 1912 and the Communist state of 1949, when these rich, smokey, traditions turned into somewhat culturally bland, ideologically driven, if athletically more challenging, versions of themselves.

[Photo by Amiya Nanda on Pexels.com]

If you look at a sample movement from the Xing Yi animals, like say Tiger, (firstly there’s the problem that this animal has been reduced to but a single movement in most lineages of Xing Yi, but let’s ignore that for now), you’ll see that it consists of a kind of aggressive double-palm push, or strike, to the chest, repeated over and over. The way the push is done is clearly related to Pi Quan (Splitting) from the 5 element fists, which also uses a palm to strike, so I can see why this generative view of the relation between elements and animals is so popular.

Take the wood element – Beng (often called crushing fist). It’s a straight strike, like a spear thrust, usually to the body using a strong opening and closing action. Again, it pops up all over the animals: For example, you could look at the double fist strike seen in Tai Xing – another of the 12 animals, and say that it’s a variation of Beng using both fists with a particular fist shape. (You can extend the knuckle of the middle finger in Tai).

Viewed like this it does start to look like the elements came first, but what I believe really happened in the historical development of Xing Yi was that somebody (one of the Dai family or Li Luoneng, who learned from them, are the most obvious candidates) created the 5 elements out of the pre-existing animal movements as a way to teach beginners.

(Historically we can say animals came first with some certainty, since an older lineage known as Xin Yi Liu He has the animals, but not the 5 elements).

Most of the animals in Xing Yi and Xin Yi have a kind of downward cutting Pi action, just expressed in different ways. By identifying it and using it as one of the 5 elements, and practicing it in isolation away from the complexity of the animals you have a way ‘in’ to Xing Yi, so it’s quite useful. You have something simple that you can practice over and over again.

So, it’s not like the elements aren’t a useful addition – they are. And you might be left wondering if it really matters which way you view the relationship between Xing Yi’s animals and elements?

Our podcast on the history of Xing Yi has been gently making the case that Xing Yi grew out of the ideas contained in the Li movement in the Song Dynasty, which was a turning back to nature and the natural way of things. Xing Yi as I generally see it being practiced today isn’t a nature-focused martial art anymore. That time has gone, and the focus on nature was stripped out a long time ago, from the start of the 20th century onward. It’s an understatement to say that in nationalist and communist ideologies, taking inspiration from nature and the natural world is not a popular idea. The concept of an animal-based martial art didn’t really fit in a China where people could live or die based on their belief in abstract political ideas. These things were understandably more ‘real’ to the average person than the natural world around them. So, the martial arts were changed accordingly.

That leads on to the obvious question – if you aren’t practicing a nature-based martial art anymore then what’s the point of fussing about the place of animals within it?

I think that’s for the individual practitioner to answer for themselves, but I’ll just leave you with this thought – nature-based martial arts are, or should be, reality-based martial arts. They should be grounded in the way the real world actually functions, and not in the world of concepts about the way we think the real world should be. The modern trend in China for (self proclaimed) Chinese martial arts masters to take on challengers trained in fight sports and get a good pasting can be seen as an example of what happens when ideology hits the nature of reality.

Quite often it hits back.

Xing Yi fast, Tai Chi slow

I seem to have entered a little phase of practicing Tai Chi in the morning then immediately doing some Xing Yi straight afterwards. I’ve never really been into doing Tai Chi especially slowly, as some people seem to love to do, but the contrast with Xing Yi straight after has really accented the speed differences, and it’s made me think about the strategy of each art.

Reflecting on the reflections at today’s practice spot.

Tai Chi forms are performed much more slowly than Xing Yi links. We all know that Tai Chi should be done slow-ish, but how fast should Xing Yi be? Because it’s an “internal art” (check out my podcast for some thoughts on what that means) people often think that Xing Yi should be done relatively slowly too. My teacher recalled to me a story of one of his teachers who would always shout at them “Faster! Faster!”, whenever they did Xing Yi. The rule was, the faster, the better. They could never be quite fast enough to satisfy him.

Xing Yi works as an intercepting art – ideally you want to be attacking inside the opponent’s attack. It’s a very different approach to standing your ground and trading blows with an opponent. Once you’re ‘inside’ their attack you want to keep on pressing forward, which is why Xing Yi ‘forms’ are generally done in a straight line. The hardest thing is getting that inside position, but once you’ve got it you don’t want to give it up until you’ve got in several decisive blows, all the while moving forward with full body connection. Nobody said it was an easy strategy to achieve, but that is the strategy.

Doing Xing Yi quickly helps you develop that fast footwork you need to rush forward when required, without falling into disaray. It says in the Xing Yi classics somewhere that when standing you want to stand like a mountain – solid, unmoving, but when it’s time to move you want to move like the sound of thunder or a landslide.

Tai Chi – at least the Yang style and its sub-styles – in contrast seems more interested in doing as little work as possible. Relaxing, using natural body motions and letting your body weight do the work are the order of the day.

When you do Tai Chi you shouldn’t really be getting out of breath*, when you do Xing Yi you should. As such the two arts compliment each other nicely.

* Your style may vary.

Xing Yi part 12 Rocks and Bamboo

In part 12 we pick up our series on Xing Yi with a new dynasty, the Yuan, examining the social changes that Mongol rule brought to China and their implications for the martial arts through the lens of the artwork of the period.

Damon also covers a bit on Marco Polo and covers one of the central points of the podcast series, that he’s building the historical case for the connection between Xing Yi and Yue Fei – essentially the idea that it’s not a fiction, joke or a legend – it’s just that people are framing the question in the wrong way.

Gongki’s Horse painting, which he uses as an example of Chinese political art from the period:

Gong Kai (1222-1307?), Emaciated Horse, in [Yuan shidai no huihua]. Tokyo (Nara?): Yamato Bunkakan, 1998. pl. 1, p. 26. Collection of the [Daban shili meishuguan]. ink on paper, 29.9 x 56.9 cm.

Anthony Bourdain on JiuJitsu Style

Anthony Bourdain courtesy of JiuJitsu Style.

There’s a great article on Jiujitsu Style about the late, great, Anthony Bourdain and his love for BJJ, which he took up later in life. Over four years, Bourdain posted on the BJJ Reddit forum, r/bjj, as NooYawkCity 80 times before his death. He wasn’t doing it to promote a book or new TV show. He was just doing it because he loved BJJ, and his writing was real, honest, unflitered and above all, relatable.

Here’s an example:

“58 years old and getting so gassed during warm ups, that when we start to roll, I end up sticking my own head into an obvious guillotine –just to take a break. An utterly humiliating class yesterday, yet showed up for a private today with 250 lbs of muscle and bone so I could get pounded like a chicken fried steak . Why am I doing this? I don’t know. I’m like a dope fiend at this point. If I can’t train I start going into withdrawal. Wander around, twitching, restless and pissed off. At least with dope, you feel GOOD afterwards. After training, I feel like a rented and unloved mule . All the other (much, much younger) white belts all seem to be coming back from long breaks because of injury. Strangely enough, so far so good for me. I may feel like a fragile box of stale breadsticks but I’ve managed to avoid injury (if not discomfort). I have never enjoyed pain. I don’t care if it’s Gisele Bunchen coming at me in thigh boots wielding a riding crop, I’m not interested. Yet I insist on getting squashed on the mats every day and feel bereft if I can’t. This is not normal. When I talk about BJJ , Old friends look at me like I have an arm growing out of my forehead. But I Won’t stop. Can’t stop.” – NooYawkCity, July 9th, 2014

Is Chinese wrestling the root of all Chinese martial arts?

An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:

“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”

It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.

I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.

I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.

But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.

Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.

Park life

Friend of the Notebook, Byron Jacobs, who lives in Beijing, recently posted a video giving a glimpse into the martial arts culture found in Beijing parks. You can see people doing all sorts of martial practices, like calisthenics, chi kung, Tai Chi, sword and push hands.

Byron comments:

“Beijing’s public spaces and parks have been gathering places for people from all walks of life for generations. This includes martial artists, who would meet regularly at such places to practice as part of their general lifestyle. Throughout the many parks of the capital, you can find practitioners of various styles and standards getting together to train regularly. This is a glimpse of some of these special places. The first episode features the Temple of Heaven.”

Pressure point striking is back!

Dim mak, pressure points, high kicks and nerve strikes! Along with permed hair, styled into a mullet, and blue jeans, these were part of the staple diet of kung fu magazines in the 1980s and 1990s. But pressure point striking quickly became something of a running joke once people found out that it couldn’t be applied in a real fight, you know, when somebody was actually trying to punch your face in, not just when they were standing in front of you passively in the dojo, happily waiting for you to strike their Gallbladder 15 or Lung 4 points.

The reputation of pressure point striking wasn’t helped by the many obvious charlatans peddling their fake pressure point striking systems on DVD and on seminar circuits. These ‘masters’ tended to only demonstrate their skills on their own gullible students, and they rarely seem to work on other people, who hadn’t been brainwashed to think they were the second coming. 

But while falling foul of reality, pressure point striking carried on a healthy second life in the fantasy-based genre of martial arts movies. For example, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a great scene where one of the fighters is almost instantly paralysed by some quick pressure point tomfoolery until he can be released by yet more pressure point touching.

And in Kill Bill: Volume 2, the late David Carridine famously succumbed to Bak Mei’s legendary 5 point palm exploding heart technique, delivered deliciously by Uma Thurman. 

Even as recently as 2021, in the Marvel TV series, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, homage was paid to the pressure point movie trope with a body-popping sequence that made the Winter Soldier’s metal arm suddenly detach from his shoulder and fall to the floor with a clank, turning him from super soldier into one-armed bandit with one simple cheat code.

However, if you ignore the mystical nonsense surrounding pressure point striking you’ll find that it is actually based on some pretty sound scientific principles. In a recent UFC 252 match Anthony Smith seemed to paralyse Jimmy Crute’s leg with a well-delivered calf kick. 

After the kick, Crute’s leg seemed to be unable to function in a way that was almost comical. Crute bravely tried to fight on, but his leg was so unusable after the strike that the ring doctor waved the fight off when he was unable to walk in a straight line properly between rounds. I’m sure I heard Pak Mei chuckle quietly to himself in his grave when it happened.

So how was this possible? The answer lies in nerves. 

As orthopedic surgeon Dr Lucius Pomerantz explains, on his YouTube channel, the phenomenon is called Drop Foot, and it’s what happens when the peroneal nerve sustains an injury. “When a nerve does not work the muscles that it innervates do not receive messages from the brain. When the peroneal nerve is injured the muscles that raise the foot at the ankle do not work – the foot drops down. Simply walking can be extremely difficult without the ability to raise the foot.”

So, there you have it. A pressure point strike achieved via a calf kick in MMA! I’m glad pressure points are making a comeback, and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future.

I just hope the permed mullet doesn’t make a comeback as well. 

He who stands on one leg (lives longer)

I’ve just finished listening to Just One Thing by Michael Mosley from BBC Sounds. It’s a short 14 minute radio show and this episode is about the benefits of standing on one leg.

I wrote a blog post a while ago about standing in a deep horse stance when brushing your teeth as a life hack for building leg strength. It was a bit of a throw-away post, but surprisingly it consistently turns up in my blog statistics as one of my most popular stories.

Michael does something similar while brushing his teeth, but he stands on one leg instead.

It turns out that your ability to stand on one leg for an extended period of time is a good indicator of how long you’re going to live, and it decreases significantly after age 35. It’s something to do with the brain slowing down as we age and the fact that balance requires the integration of so many body systems, but the good news is that we can improve our balance with practice.

You can give your self a little test of your balance right now if you like. Try and stand on one leg for 30 seconds each side, and for 10 seconds with your eyes shut. Be careful though, standing on one leg with your eyes shut is very tricky!

So, what’s the best way to improve you balance? Professor Dawn Skelton from Glasgow Caledonian University was interviewed in the programme about all things relating to balance, and at 10 minutes 59 seconds she recommends Tai Chi as one of the best activities to improve your balance and prevent your first serious fall – especially for old people. It is 3 dimensional movement, so your head moves at different times to the rest of your body, and because it’s slow and controlled you get great feedback from joints.

So there you go – yet more evidence that Tai Chi is good for you and will help you live longer!

How much water should you drink a day?

We are constantly bombarded with the idea that we need to drink quite a large volume of water a day. Have you ever tried to drink the recommended 3 litres, or 8 cups, of water in a day? It’s actually pretty hard to do, and you’ll end up going to the toilet constantly. At least, that’s my experience!

After listening to the new Body Stuff podcast from TED Audio Collective by Dr Jen Gunter I now realise that this commonly accepted myth was spread by bottled water and sports drink companies using bogus science. It’s a better idea to simply drink when you feel thirsty – unless you have some sort of medical condition.

Give the podcast a listen, because it’s pretty good. You can find it on Apple Podcasts.

Here’s the info on the show:

Body Stuff with Dr. Jen Gunter, the newest podcast from the TED Audio Collective, launches on May 19. Body Stuff will bust the lies you’re told — and sold — about your personal health. Body Stuff is hosted by celebrated OB/GYN, pain medicine physician and TED speaker Dr. Jen Gunter, who has made it her mission to combat health misinformation online and isn’t afraid to take on the world’s biggest peddlers of it — from lotions and potions to diets and detoxes.

Each week’s episode debunks a medical myth and turns us into experts by demystifying how our bodies work. For example, did you know that you don’t actually need eight glasses of water a day? Or that you can’t “boost” your immune system? With humor and wit, Dr. Jen Gunter is here to educate you, while also disproving myths that have been around for centuries. 

TED

The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology your favourite Tai Chi blog is now available in podcast form. No, not that one, I mean, my blog, The Tai Chi Notebook.

A glorious computer voice called Cassidy now reads my blog posts and publishes them as an audio podcast, so I don’t have to. I’m still playing around with the system, so I imagine it will start badly and get better 🙂

Anyway, my first episode, my review of Kent Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang is now live as a podcast episode. Enjoy!

RSS feed if you want to subscribe.

Anchor.fm page

Spotify page (available in a few days)